Puppy with a ball

February is Responsible Pet Ownership month, a time when advocates will be encouraging those with companion animals to vaccinate, spay and neuter.

Those are important messages, says Jason Coe, associate professor in the Department of Population Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC). He also says it’s important to recognize that responsible pet ownership begins even before you bring home that adorable pet.

“Not every animal is right for every person,” says Coe. “People really need to spend time thinking about what they want to get out of having a pet, and what they are able to put into the relationship. Ask yourself what the animal’s needs are and whether you can meet them.”

As the Nestlé Purina PetCare Canada Chair in Communications and academic lead for the college’s veterinary communications program, Coe helps veterinary students develop skills such as how to talk to clients about preventative care, nutrition and issues around adoption.

Some considerations before adding a pet to the family are: Will you be able to provide the exercise and social interactions the animal needs? And, are you aware of the costs involved in raising a pet? The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association suggests the average annual cost for a dog is $2,749 and $1,655 for a cat. “Of course there may be unexpected extra costs at times,” Coe says, “but this is a good basis for planning.”

Finding the right match between pet and owner isn’t always easy. The Guelph Humane Society uses temperament testing and adoption counsellors to match animals with their potential adopters. Coe says the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) is promoting a new system that assesses animals and assigns colour codes based on their behaviours and temperament. Potential adopters also complete a quiz and receive their own colour codes.

“The animals with the same colour code are likely to be your best match,” says Coe. “This is a more objective way of making these choices. Of course, adopters might choose a pet with another code, it then gives counsellors an opportunity to have a conversation with them so they will be more aware of the areas where the pet may not match their expectations and where the adopter might need to make some adjustments to their expectations.”

Potential owners should also consider if they have any “deal-breakers”: behaviours or temperament traits they just can’t work with. Aggressive behaviour, for example, can be a definite “no” for many families, especially if they have small children.

“Knowing what things you can’t accept when choosing a pet will reduce the risk of the pet and owner relationship breaking down, and that means fewer animals ending up in shelters,” says Coe.

As well, Coe encourages people to think ahead. “A dog could live 10 or 15 years, and cats often live even longer,” he says. “So consider what your plans are for the next decade, and what contingency plans you have for your animal if your situation changes.” One of the most common causes for dogs coming into shelters is an owner who is moving, he adds.

Veterinarians have a role to play in this process, too.

“As veterinarians, we have a great opportunity to educate pet owners about what their animals need, and to help them plan for the future,” says Coe. “It’s stressful for both owners and pets when the relationship doesn’t work out and the animal has to be surrendered. When we can help their relationship succeed, everyone wins.”